Superintendent Rick Smith talks with board member David Testerman before the Board of Education approved a spending plan for the coming fiscal year. (Photo: Staff)

The Hamilton County Board of Education backed a $434 million budget request, putting a pending revenue decision in the hands of the County Commission.

The board approved the spending plan on a 7–2 vote Thursday evening.

Superintendent Rick Smith has another month to sell his plan for the school system to the public and skeptical commissioners. The plan would need five votes from the commission next month, but it's unclear if there is enough support to raise taxes or make cuts elsewhere to fund $34 million in enhancement items listed in the budget.

"You're authorizing me to take this to the County Commission," Smith told board members. "It is their job from that point forward to figure out the revenue."

The budget plan would fund a 5 percent increase for teachers' salaries and benefits. It would also increase funding for administrative personnel by a smaller percentage.

"We're trying to get the best teachers we can in the South, but we can't get them if we can't pay them," board member Donna Horn said. "They don't want to come here without a good pay scale."

Hamilton County teachers earn an average of $48,017 a year, which is slightly higher than the average for Tennessee but lower than the national average of $56,689.

Horn, a former educator, said she took a pay cut when she moved from the Northeast to Hamilton County in the 1990s.

In the past five budget cycle years, benefits have been cut by about $7 million. An increase to teachers' salaries is paramount, she said. Anything less than a 5 percent increase would be a "smack in the face."

"If nothing else came out of this budget, that's what I want to see," she said.

Board members Greg Martin and Rhonda Thurman voted against the budget. They said more work was needed in light of expected opposition from commissioners.

Martin said the superintendent injected the politics of a 40-cent increase to the property tax rate in the initial rollout of the budget plan. Martin called the move "ill-timed and not well advised."

"It is not this school board's role to push for more taxes to expand government," he said. "That's a matter to be settled by the county mayor and County Commission."

If a revenue increase were so pressing, it should have been put forward before last year's election to give voters a chance to decide the plan's fate, Martin said.

Board member David Testerman passionately defended the budget. He excoriated state officials for not fully funding the Basic Education Program and urged the commission to show leadership on the spending plan. 

"As a school board, we need to be looking for ways to make education better," he said. "The way for this county to grow is not just cut money from the school system."

For the past few weeks, Smith has been making community presentations that focus less on the current budget request and more on his long-term vision to make Hamilton County schools the best in the South by 2025.

The budget would also add art and foreign language classes to elementary schools and make new investments in technology equipment and training.

"I'm glad he's put it on paper and sharing it with the community," said Commissioner Tim Boyd, Education Committee chair. "How he's going to fund it and how he's going to effectively implement some of these programs, I don't have a clue. There's a lot of devils in the details of his vision."

Boyd wants to see a review of the number of high-paid positions in the school system's central office. He's advocating that certain functions, like transportation and food service, be scrutinized to see if those jobs can be done more efficiently by private contractors.

Local magnet schools such as Normal Park and Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts are "blowing it out of the water," winning national accolades for their performances under current funding levels, Boyd said. 

Commissioner Sabrena Turner-Smedley, one of a handful of county officials in attendance Thursday evening, said the school budget has a slim chance of passage on the commission. She wants to determine if the Department of Education has exhausted every possible revenue option, including philanthropic.

She said she's being inundated by senior citizens concerned about a property tax hike. Meanwhile, the commission is considering a tax freeze for older residents and veterans. The number of Hamilton County renters is at a 15-year high, she said.

"You have to wonder who would shoulder the burden of a tax increase," she said. "As far as that goes, we're looking at property owners."

The superintendent's presentation highlights several alarming statistics about the current state of Hamilton County schools. Nearly 60 percent of third-grade students read below grade level. Close to 65 percent of high school graduates do not pursue postsecondary education and end up earning low incomes. 

UnifiEd Executive Director Beth Crews said there needs to be more correlation between the current proposal and improving the system's overall performance. It's one thing to say you want to turn schools around. It's another to show how those goals are measured.

"I want to see more of a return on investment," she said. "I think we need to be able to measure it and see the progress."

The nonprofit organization advocates for greater public access to information about the school system. The school system's budget is drafted under state guidelines, which leaves the dense, 250-page document open to wide, sometimes erroneous interpretations.

"There's a lot of mistrust because people don't know where their money is going," she said. 

Hamilton County Education Association President Sandy Hughes said health insurance, one of the few perks teachers have, has been weakened the past few years. Premiums and copays have gotten more expensive. The pool of in-network doctors has shrunk. The addition of art and foreign language classes would help teachers prepare students for a global economy, she said.

Commissioners often contend that the way to increase revenues is through economic growth. But a strong school system is integral to attracting business and outside investment, she said. Preparing a next-generation workforce requires extensive experience with technology skills. That's the best investment the commission could make, she said.

"It's expensive to educate children of poverty and special needs," she said. "They come into the school system way behind."

Updated @ 9:13 p.m. on 4/16/15.
Updated @ 8:13 a.m. on 4/17/15.